In a prior post, I introduced the metaphor of Three Kingdoms—World, Perception, & Conception—that together constitute the human experience. We might observe a correspondence between Body, Mind, & Spirit, respectively. The union of the latter triad forms the human being, the former the reflection of the universe in his experience. In other words:
The body does transaction with the material world;
The mind with our perceptions of it.
Finally, the spirit stirs as we transcend the particular perceptions to form universal conceptions.
An appropriate relationship within & between these twice three aspects is an essential quality of a flourishing life.
“Three Kingdoms” was a political metaphor to frame the inter/intraplay among the manifold dimensions of every individual. Now I wish to present a naturalistic one. How might we consider the human being in terms of the five elements of Vedic philosophy:
And how does this relate to our project of integration—Structural & otherwise? Each element symbolically represents certain qualities & characteristix. Integration is the product of balance within & amongst the several elements; struggle arises through surfeit or dearth.
We will begin this examination with Earth—most substantial of elements. Earth stands for structure, weight, density, & solidity. Earth supports us, grounds us, nourishes us. Alignment of the physical body—Structural Integration—is a fundamentally a telluric inquiry. How does the physical structure—figurative Earth—relate to the actual planet Earth under gravity? If this quality is balanced, our structure will be sturdy. When Earth over-expresses relative to the other elements, however, we ossify. Our bodies harden. We find ourselves bound, fixed, & rigid in the affairs of all Three Kingdoms. Too little Earth, conversely & we forfeit substance, structure, support, & dependability altogether. We find ourselves prone to float away into the cloudless sky like untethered balloons at a State Fair in Montana.
Continuing our traverse, we encounter our next element. Where Earth is solid, Water moves. Water represents fluidity, the capacity to adapt. The Tao Te Ching actually calls water (ironically) “the highest good” because:
…it flows in the lowest places, which men reject
& does not strive.”
Water provides us with the ability to respond to our ever-changing environs in the most efficient manner. Notice that a trickle of water always finds the path of least resistance. Notice too that, in a water-filled barrel, no matter where one should think to poke a hole in it, the water would spill out at that precise point without a moment’s hesitation—”Hold to the center,” the Tao also counsels: you can’t surprise it. This is the watercourse way & the wellspring of Water’s genius.
But there is also an unsettling aspect to this fluidity: above Romantic poet John Keats’ grave are to be found these words:
Here lies one whose name was writ in water.
The quote is tragic to us because it reminds us of transience. Nothing lasts. We recognise that water would never meet the quill of the will to inscribe Keats’ turn of phrase—instead the liquid would simply disperse about it. So good thing they carved the said epigraph in stone; something more solid. This represents the negative quality of even this most “highest good:” too much fluidity renders one spineless, inclined to wriggle out of direct confrontation at all costs. Naturally, we seek balance, for too little fluidity renders us brittle. This represents desertification of onetime supple tissues: in a drought we dry up like a dead cactus or a yucca tree.
What to do with such a goodly pyre of desiccated cacti? Fire is the element of transformation. And in this process, Fire necessarily consumes the original substance. Fire is energy, passion, heat, light. Fire is volatile & sometimes unforgiving: once we transmute our pile of saguaro-shavings into ash, we can’t recover the dusty original. Likewise once you eat a banana, you can’t get it back ( in its original form). Fire represents the force of metabolism—the transformation food into energy. Not only does Fire digest food, but likewise experiences & emotions. Fire also represents will, drive, energy as well as direct, unmediated knowing. Consider an interpersonal relationship in which one party plays with Fire & the other Water—the one advanceth whilst the other disperses; direction met by dissipation. Fire is utterly unfulfilled & Water feels continually violated. Obviously this would be a challenging interaction to negotiate, & both parties were well-served with the understanding that this elemental paradigm offers.
Where Water threatens to stifle Fire, Air runs the opposite risk when the two meet in over-expression. Air represents activity. We only feel air when it moves, we only see it when it rustles the linden leaves on an August afternoon. Air animates, mythologized in manifold traditions as the activity of breath. Air, as breath, is the hallmark of life itself. A superabundance of air becomes a tornado, business for its own sake, activity that is frenetic (try windsurfing in a hurricane). Conversely, in its lack one might as well be a vegetable, or mineral—inanimate. Air, when balanced, performs effective action—it never hurries, yet leaves nothing undone.
The alchemists of the Middle Ages in Europe, in their philosophy, stopped after this fourth element. Their heuristic was like pie divided into four quadrants; a four-spoked wheel. But wise men several thousand miles further south & east perceived not only what was there, but also what was not:
Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub;
It is on the hole in the center that
The use of the cart hinges.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Carve fine doors and windows,
But the room is useful in its emptiness
The usefulness of what is
depends on what is not.
—Tao Te Ching; Chapter XXI
Ether is the space in which all other elements exist:
Where will you put the pie if the pie-plate’s already full?
Or the last marble when there is no room left in the jar?
In this way, form depends on emptiness. In fact they are inseparable. Oriental sages clearly understood this unity of apparent opposites. The value of zero could not escape the extraordinary perception of the Indian intellect either. Neither the Greeks, nor the Romans, nor the Hebrews, nor the barbarian hoards in Northern Europe thought to include the concept of zero in their various number systems—Alaric the Visigoth need little philosophy to sack the Capitol. Instead, Western culture had to adopt such subtle thought-currents from the mathematicians of Hindustan. The appreciation of nothing was as evident in Near Eastern philosophy as in their numerals: Buddhism’s celebration of nothing finds expression in the Heart Sutra, with Nagarjuna’s wonderfully apocryphal lines:
Form is Emptiness
Emptiness is Form
Form is not other than Emptiness
Emptiness is not other than form.
This is to say that those phenomena that we generally hold to be independent actually arise together. All things transpire within the space of nothingness; this nothingness is primary. Some find this unsettling; if this upsets you, don’t think about it, just dig it. Physicists calculate that if we could condense all the mass of planet Earth, it would fit into a pellet no larger than a grain of basmati rice. We are mostly nothing; emptiness is our essence. Christians actually know this, even if they don’t know they know: go back to the beginning of their Holy Book…according to King James’ scribes,
In the beginning, God created Heaven & Earth.
The latter, they wrote, “was formless & void.” Picture the parchment before it felt the prick of their holy quills…it was blank: “Form arises from Emptiness.” There is of course an auditory analogue: imagine a bishop all bedight in satin robes enunciating this holy verse from the holy pulpit. Now imagine the sound right before he opened his blesséd mouth…nothing, nosound, silence. The sermon to follow depended on this emptiness—indeed the silence persisted through the sermon, we just ceased to notice it with the bishop’s first enunciation. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet & whether we call it space, void , silence, stillness, emptiness, or ether, nothingness is the container in which everything resides—the vacant stage whereupon the drama of the entire cosmos unfolds.
Brevity being the soul of wit, allow me to recapitulate: integration of the multifaceted human being demands a balance between
receptivity to new experience.
These qualities find rough representation in the five elements of
Image credit: http://narcissus-art.deviantart.com/art/Four-Elements-289555494
The four elements as the four quadrants represented by the symbology of Medieval alchemy, & the fifth element expressed as the canvas itself!
One thought on “Ye Three Kingdoms & Ye Five Elements that Constitute Them”
I’m impressed, I have to admit. Seldom do I encounter a blog
that’s both educative and amusing, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head.
The problem is something not enough people are speaking intelligently
about. I’m very happy I found this in my hunt for something relating to this.